So, wife carrying. It's a sport, apparently. And we have the Finns to thank for inventing it. It's in Finland where the annual Wife Carrying World Championships are held each July, and since we were in Finland over the summer, how could be in country and not attend this wondrous event!
Before we get on to our experiences, let's back up for a second and explain what this thing is all about.
What is wife carrying?
The Wife Carrying World Championships or Eukonkannon MM-kisat began in the small Finnish town of Sonkajärvi in 1992. The sport of wife carrying requires men to carry their wives through a gruelling 253.5m obstacle course, involving two dry and one water obstacle, about a metre deep. The champion is the team who crosses the line in the fastest time.
The now annual event attracts competitors from around the world, many of whom are champion wife carriers in their home countries where the fun of the sport has already spread. Anyone can enter, however, and the event seems to attract a certain adventurous and fun-loving crowd. The official website of the event claims that wife carrying is not only a sport, “it's an attitude towards life.”
The history of wife carrying
The sport of wife carrying actually stems from a rather unsavory history. Legend has it that a Finnish gangster in the 1800s by the name of Rosvo-Ronkainen or “Ronkainen the Robber” led men on raids of local villages. They would steal goods and women, throwing the ladies over their shoulders as they ran off. In another version of the story, Rosvo-Ronkainen and his men would go to neighbouring villages, stealing other men's wives and then forcing them to be their own. And perhaps how the competitive sporting element came into it, in yet another tale, Rosvo-Ronkainen is said to have made potential new gang recruits run a demanding course carrying heavy sacks to prove their strength for the raids.
Even today this spirit of “wife-stealing” is present in the competition rules, in which it is stated that the woman being carried may be your own wife, the neighbour's or found from “further afield”. While the word eukonkanto is often colloquially translated as “wife carrying race,” a more accurate translation would actually be “old hag carrying race”.
To compete or not to compete?
We arrived at the competition site having no idea as to whether we'd be allowed to compete or not. We'd registered via the championship's online form at 5pm the previous day, and then got on an overnight bus to Iisalmi, the closest stop to our destination around 20km away, from where we took a taxi. (If you're planning on attending this event, be sure to read our advice about getting there at the end of this post).
However, we were greeted with warmth and intrigue at the contest site, and our names had indeed already been added to the competitor's list. After paying our €50 competitor fee, we received our competitor's bag that included our official Wife Carrying World Championship t-shirts, our competitor wristbands (which acted as an “all access” pass around the grounds) and our race numbers complete with safety pins to attach them to our race clothes, of which ours were rather inappropriate for the activity. We made the best of what we had in our backpacks. I was wearing denim shorts for crying out loud!
The Finns have created a whole festival of the event. Sonkajärvi is a town of only 5,000 people so think of it as a small local fair, with stalls, games and raffles. In a nod to the origins of the festival, there is even an auction of Rosvo-Ronkainen's “borrowed goods”.
Watching the pros
Walking around the festival site, my nerves started to build. I've never been the athletic type and I don't like water. We watched the reigning champion Ville Parviainen and his new partner Sari Viljanen jumping into the water obstacle several times for photos for the media. He full-on sprinted from the starting line and lunged forward, while her head remained submerged in the water until he powered his way out the other side.
Team wife carrying competition
At around 1pm, there was the team wife carrying competition, which we could attend without extra charge with our competitor wristbands. The teams are made up of three men and one woman and they run the same obstacle course as the individual team event. Basically it's like a relay with each man running a certain section of the track and the woman like the “baton,” being carried by each member.
There is one very specific rule that adds another level of fun/difficulty to the event. Before the next runner can hoist the woman over his shoulders, the previous one must down a bottle of the official “wife carrying drink”. The local seated next to us informed us that this secret concoction is nothing more than soda water. But as with anything carbonated, it's not easy to skull, and cheering the participants on as they chugged away was all part of the fun. This was the first time we'd seen competitors go through the race from start to finish and it was super enjoyable to watch, albeit a little nerve wracking since we knew we'd have to tough our way through that very same course later on in the afternoon.
After more nervous walking around, we went to sit down on a bench on the perimeter of the sports ground. A couple of minutes later, a man ran past who I recognised as five time consecutive world wife carrying champion Taisto Miettinen. When I'm nervous about something, I do this thing where I research like crazy on the Internet hoping to find some little gem of an article that will quash all my fears and make this thing I'm about to do seem like a piece of cake. Remember the whole bungy jumping ordeal?
Of course what usually happens is hours of nausea inducing YouTube viewing that generally falls into two categories. The first is the ‘having the time of my life' type video starring super athletes/adrenaline junkies who seem to master highly difficult or death-defying stunts with ease. A category that I know I definitely don't fall into. The second is a genre I like to call ‘when things go wrong'. A category that I fear I can easily fall into because of my complete and utter lack of belonging to category one.
Needless to say I knew this guy's face. It was still two hours until the contest was going to begin and he was already warming up. Of course he was.
The self doubt creeps in
Me: “What have we gotten ourselves in for?”
Hai: “I thought you wanted to do it? I would have been happy just to watch.”
Indeed, this was what Hai had really intended when he told me about the contest several weeks earlier. He'd happened upon it while researching for our trip and thought it would make the perfect event for some interesting photos as a spectator. Usually Hai is always up for crazy challenges – his recent crazy talk has been of participating in this festival in Japan where people sit on these huge logs and are then rolled down a hillside – but he wasn't that keen on this one. While he is relatively strong, he has a slender frame and carrying me would mean carrying his own body weight around a course the length of three football fields in front of 10,000 people and against competitors like Miettinen who have been seriously training for years. I couldn't blame him.
And there is always that secret part of you that wants an out in stressful situations. Like if the festival organisers had said, “Oh, we're sorry, you signed up too late.” You can throw your arms up and say, “Well, we tried” and not feel too bad about it. But I would have felt bad about it, to have come all that way and not tried out of fear. I'm always going on about taking leaps of faith and stepping outside of your comfort zone on this blog, it would be contradictory of me to not follow my own advice. Plus I really wanted to be able to say I'd done this. If wife carrying isn't on some list of bizarre things to do before you die, I don't know what is! We were going to do this thing! Yet we hadn't done any preparation and I wondered how it was all going to pan out.
Trying to knock ourselves out of it/choosing a carry method
Me: ‘Let's go practice.”
We headed over to a grassed area and we tried out the ‘Estonian carry' for the first time. While you are free to choose your method of carrying, the Estonian way involving the woman hanging down the man's back with legs out front is widely considered the most efficient as it's a more streamlined position and leaves the man's arms free for the sprint.
The reason it's called the ‘Estonian' method is because it was first seen used by Estonian competitors. And those guys really know how to wife carry, let me tell you. Estonians won 11 consecutive world titles from 1998 to 2008. In fact, it was the Estonian combo of Margo Uusorg and Birgit Ullrich who set the current world record time of 55.5 seconds in the year 2000. It has only been in recent years that the Finns have regained their dominance in the sport. But the ‘Estonian carry' has stuck, with most competitors opting for it.
I managed to get on and Hai had all but mock ran a few metres before I felt dizzy.
Hai: “Hold on!”
Me: “Oh my god, this is horrible!”
While huge props have to be given to the men for the gruelling task of carrying their woman through the course, being carried is much harder than it looks. It's not easy doing the race up-side down and the female role is very important in establishing a good grip and rhythm to prevent falls/injury and to pick up any kind of pace. Working closely together as a team therefore is a big part of your success. In fact, the organisers almost recommend wife carrying as some kind of marital counselling, saying it is “good for your relationship” and citing “eroticism” as a key element of the sport on their page about how to become a master wife carrier. While I was glad to have at least tried our chosen carrying style before the race, it didn't instill me with any confidence. Now it just seemed harder than imaginable.
Me: “I'm really going to die out there.”
By now it was time to start thinking about getting changed. There was a lot of lycra and marathon style wear going on in the locker rooms. Competitors were busy doing their pre-race routines, kissing their lucky charms and “getting into the zone”. Meanwhile I'm trying not to look out of place in my denim shorts.
The Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony actually started 25 minutes earlier than we were expecting, so it was a quick dash out to the arena to find our position behind the Australian flag. Upon arrival, we had been asked into the storage room to point out the Australian flag for the ceremony because the organisers weren't sure which one it was since we hailed from such a distant land, even though they knew they had one because Australians had competed in the past.
We found our position along with the 2015 Australian Wife Carry Champions, Luke and Jade of Singleton, New South Wales. At least someone would do our country proud!
The opening ceremony was surreal; done with pomp and prestige. All of the flags of the 14 countries represented made their way around the arena, while the crowd clapped and cheered. I don't think we'll ever get to experience that kind of reception for any sporting endeavour ever again! It felt rather comical waving to the crowd, seeing spectators stand in respect and just all round pretending we were Olympians for a few minutes. After completing the lap, the flags were placed at the top of the grand stands, where they would wave proudly throughout the competition.
The Wife Carrying World Championships begin!
Now it was time to get down to business. Organisers were busy surveying the shed where contestants were sheltering from the heavy rain, checking off team numbers and weighing female competitors. You see, there are only two rules about the woman you carry – she must be over 17 and weigh a minimum of 49kg (or 108 pounds). If she does not meet the minimum weight requirement, she will have to wear a weighted rucksack that brings her to the minimum weight. Now this was a competition test that I could pass with flying colours! There's also another reason why the woman is weighed. The prize for the champion is the wife's weight in beer! So let thee decide one's priorities – a lighter carry or more beer.
With races only taking a few minutes each, they advanced in quick succession, yet slowly enough to let the nerves build again. Three teams competed at a time in order of registration. As we entered late, we were in the final race.
Our Aussie counterparts raced much earlier and because we were already mates, in the true spirit of our great nation, they had asked us to record the race for them. They did amazingly well but an unfortunate fall right before the finish line cost them one of the top positions. You see, a 15 second time penalty is added for anyone who drops their “wife” and she's not allowed to assist in her retrieval, meaning the man must lift her up to complete the race.
Jade stumbled back injured. She opened her mouth to reveal a chipped front tooth. We had assumed that this happened in the fall, but she said it actually happened in the pool. She had knocked her chin against Luke's back on the jump and had spent the entire race wondering if she still had a tooth there! They of course had to hurry off to the dentist and now I was more nervous than ever. (On a side note, she sent me a message later saying it turned out she had, in fact, chipped three teeth!). If a fit team who'd been training for the event came out injured, what were the chances that amateurs like us would get through the race without incident?
Me: “I'm really going to die out there.”
Time for our race
Finally the time came for our race. There's one other thing about the final race of the day, it always includes the reigning champion. So along with one other team, we were competing against the previous year's winner, whom we nicknamed ‘Hercules'.
Once we were given the go ahead to get into position, there wasn't any time to panic before the beep sounded the start of the race. Unlike other track events where there are several long moments between runners getting into position and starting, in wife carrying you want to spend the least amount of time having to carry the wife, so they don't mess about.
As Hai dashed away, I had no idea where we were in relation to the water obstacle. When should I hold my breath? What if I breathe in too early or too late? Or the water goes up my nose? The wade through the water obstacle was about 9 metres (30 feet) and if I time this wrong, it's could be a long wait for my next breath!
Probably the best piece of pre-race advice we received was to jump into the water obstacle. It's difficult as a pair but is far preferable to trying to run in on the plastic sheeting that was holding the water, on which you would most definitely slip and fall. While we were last to enter the water, we were the second out. Already we felt victorious, I hadn't drowned and, despite not having done any preparation, we weren't horrific!
Ready to see how the race went? Here's our Wife Carrying World Championship experience.
What we thought about the Wife Carrying World Championships
There are three awesome things about being in the last race of the day. 1) Nobody expects you to beat the reigning champion. 2) Everyone loves an underdog. 3) The crowd is super excited for the last hurrah of the day.
It was so awesome having the crowd get behind us and one of the commentators even came up to us later and kindly said that thanks to us taking longer they had the chance to talk more about us and how far we had come for the race. Finns seem to be genuinely excited to see competitors from all over the world at their event, like it's a sign of how big it has become.
It was no surprise that ‘Hercules' won again this year but, despite his success, he's a super down to earth guy, as reported by Hai after their locker room chat.
The only thing that was disappointing about the event was that the finish line didn't say “Finnish line” like I had seen in photos from previous year's events. Did anyone else feel this? Bring it back! I love silly puns!
While wife carrying is taken very seriously by those at the top of the sport, there is also a real festive atmosphere about. In fact, one of the rules stipulated by the International Wife Carrying Competition Rules Committee (yes, there is such a thing!) is that, “all the participants must have fun.” Some fun consolation prizes like ‘best costume' encourage competitors to get dressed up in their wackiest outfits and just have fun with it. A shorter course of 100m for seniors also takes place the night before the main competition.
So if sports have never been quite your thing or you want to strengthen your relationship with your partner through an interesting challenge, perhaps wife carrying could be your calling. Start training now! According to the official event website, “It is possible to train for the wife carrying competition everywhere in the middle of the daily routines: in the bath, in the super market, in the playground or in the body building centre.” So what are you waiting for?